Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


What Language Did Jesus Speak? Why Does It Matter? An Introduction

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Six years ago, people all of a sudden became interested in the language spoken by Jesus. The occasion for this burst of curiosity was the release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. Although responses to this movie varied widely, just about every viewer was struck by the fact that not one word of English was spoken in the film. All dialogue was in one of two ancient languages: Aramaic or Latin. Without the English subtitles, most of us wouldn’t have been able to understand a word in The Passion of the Christ. (Photo: A statue of Jesus in his passion, from a church on the Mediterranean island of Menorca.)

jesus-passion-menorca-5.jpgMany who saw this movie wondered about its antique languages. What is Aramaic, anyway? Was this really the language spoken by Jesus? Didn’t he speak Hebrew, the primary language of the Hebrew Scriptures? And, since the New Testament Gospels are preserved in Greek manuscripts, is it possible that Jesus also spoke Greek?

In February 2004, the month when The Passion of the Christ was released, I wrote a short blog series on the language(s) of Jesus. Drawing from my background in New Testament studies, I tried to explain in non-technical terms the issues associated with the language or languages spoken by Jesus. My answer to the question “What language(s) did Jesus speak?” was representative of what most scholars of the New Testament believe, and was based on key passages from the New Testament itself, as well as an understanding of life in Judea during the first century A.D. In a nutshell, I showed that it’s most likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language, and that he almost certainly knew Hebrew and perhaps Greek as well. It was unlikely, I argued, that Jesus spoke Latin, as envisioned in The Passion of the Christ.

During the past six years, thousands of people have visited my series on the language(s) of Jesus, thanks to the power of Google and similar search engines. The vast majority of readers did not contact me, which is just fine. They had no particular reason to do so. A few dozen people emailed me to thank me for what I had written.

And then there were the others, those who were not happy with me and what I had written. Sometimes they wrote nasty notes, criticizing my scholarship and even my Christian character. Sometimes they wrote extensive treatises, arguing at length for a position different from the one I had taken in my series. Among those who wrote, a few referred to credible scholars who have argued that Hebrew and/or Greek were commonly used by Jews in Judea during the time of Jesus. Some who contacted me seemed to believe that because the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, Jesus must have spoken Hebrew, otherwise somehow his mission as the Messiah would have been deficient. Some were worried that if Jesus spoke Aramaic, this would contradict passages in the Gospel of John that refer to Hebrew being spoken (though not by Jesus, actually).

In the last couple of years, I have run into a new reason why some people dispute the notion that Jesus spoke Aramaic. It has to do with the passion among some Muslims for an Aramaic-speaking Jesus. Presumably, and I have not followed these arguments carefully, certain Muslims use the idea that Jesus spoke Aramaic as a support for the truth of Islam. In response, some Christians have taken up arms in favor of the Hebrew-speaking Jesus. Those who fight this battle have accused me of giving aid and comfort to the enemies of Christianity by suggesting that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. (Note: If you are aware of other reasons why the language(s) of Jesus matter so much to some people, please let me know by leaving a comment below.)

I must admit that I was stunned by the extent to which some people get worked up about the language(s) of Jesus. As one who believes about Jesus all the things orthodox Christians do, it would not impact my faith one jot or tittle if Jesus spoke Hebrew rather than Aramaic, or Greek rather than Hebrew. Thus I am not caught up in the emotional maelstrom of this language of Jesus debate.

But I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. (Okay, I’ve had a couple of people object to this on the grounds that Jesus was God, and that God knows everything, so therefore Jesus knew how to speak English. Apart from the theological problems with this view, it is surely true that Jesus did not actually speak English, no matter whether or not he had a miraculous ability to do so. Nobody in the first-century A.D. spoke English, least of all those who lived in Judea. So we can be sure that Jesus, Son of God and all, did not speak English.)

The fact that Jesus did not speak English serves as a reminder to those of us who do that we need to work hard if we wish to understand the original meaning of Jesus’ teachings. Now, you don’t have to spend the next several years learning ancient languages because English translations of the biblical text are quite reliable. Moreover, there are plenty of commentaries and teachers who can bridge the gaps in your linguistic understanding. In fact, careful study of the English text of the Bible will allow you to discern Jesus’ true meaning in most instances, even if you don’t know the language(s) he spoke. But this careful study requires time and effort. And it requires acknowledging the gap between Jesus’ culture and our own. Many common misunderstandings of Jesus stem from the projection of English meanings and American culture onto Jesus’ words and ways.

In the next few posts, I will offer a revised and improved (I hope!) version of my original series on the language of Jesus. I hope to show why most historians believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic, as well as to consider the possibility that he also spoke Hebrew and/or Greek and/or Latin. When I finish with my historical survey, I’ll offer some further reasons why it matters to us what language(s) Jesus spoke.



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Cheryl Ann

posted July 1, 2010 at 2:40 am


I have experienced prophetic dreams for fifty years. Most recently, to my angst, my dreams involve casting demons.
The ‘voice’ in casting a demon in my most recent dream, when calling out in the name of, and by the power of authority given by “My Lord & Savior Jesus Christ” was Navajo (NA), I believe. I have just begun recording whatever may present itself aloud from these dreams. I will post again with further results.
PS: I speak no other language than English.
Point of comment; MANY don’t even claim Yashua as Yahwee (excuse my non-Hebrew illiteracy), incarnate. I don’t know why any non-believer would care; just another reason to divide God’s (ALL) people, possibly. My living God speaks whatever language is most easily understood dependent upon to whom he is speaking.
Thank you,
Cheryl Ann



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Dr. W. L. Goff

posted July 1, 2010 at 5:58 am


Thanks, Dr. Roberts, for revisiting this discussion of the language or languages Jesus spoke. It is always good to review our opinions and to be open to change. As you may recall, I took part in your last blog discussion of this topic. Since that time my opinion has changed somewhat although I still believe that the preponderance of the evidence leads to the conclusion that Hebrew was Jesus’ mother tongue. I also suspect that he was well acquainted with Aramaic and also able to converse in a limited way in Greek and Latin.
When I lived and studied in Israel for ten months I had the privilege of meeting Father Elias Chacour, a priest of the ancient Melkite Church who is an Arab Palestinian and an Israeli citizen. I’d heard that he spoke many languages, so I asked him, “Father Chacour, how many languages do you speak?”
He said, “It’s not so important how many languages you speak, but what you have to say.” I later learned that Father Chacour is fluent in eleven languages. (By the way, I plan to visit Israel this summer and I have an appointment to meet Father Chacour who is now Archbishop of the Galilee region.)
Certainly what Jesus had to say is more important than what languages he spoke. Yet I think it is useful to try to determine what language Jesus primarily spoke so we can better understand the Gospels.
Rather than asking generally what language Jesus spoke, I think a more focused question is this: What was Jesus’ first language, his mother tongue? And a related relevant question is “to what extent is the first language of Jesus reflected in the Gospels?”.
In four years of study at Fuller Theological Seminary I absorbed the idea that Jesus spoke Aramaic. I say absorbed because I did not encounter a well reasoned argument which examined the evidence for this position. It was just assumed and asserted with such frequency that one didn’t bother to question it.
However on my sabbatical in Jerusalem I encountered some Bible scholars who knew both Hebrew and Greek well who were quite convinced that Jesus’ mother tongue was Hebrew. Among these scholars were the late Dr. Robert Lindsey and Dr. David Flusser. The former was a Southern Baptist pastor who lived in Israel most of his life and the latter a renown Jewish professor (who wrote the article on Jesus for the Jewish Encyclopedia). Part of the evidence that led them to their belief was the fact that the sectarian writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls written around the time of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth were written almost exclusively in colloquial Hebrew. Another part of the evidence for them was the discovery that much of the Synoptic Gospels, especially Luke can be easily translated from Greek into Hebrew.
Several books by David Flusser are in print including The Sage from Galilee. Unfortunately Dr. Lindsey’s ground-breaking work, A Translation of the Gospel of Mark, is out of print.
Two more recent books have been helpful for my thinking on this issue. One is Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Jr. A more comprehensive examination of the evidence is in Douglas Hamp’s book, Discovering the Language of Jesus. A useful website that continues to examine this issue is http://www.jerusalemperspective.com.
I am not aware of a book which takes into consideration the Dead Sea Scrolls and argues persuasively that the first language of Jesus was Aramaic. If anybody knows of such a book, let me know. (Although he has not written about it in a systematic way, I know from private conversations with Dr. Kenneth Bailey that he now believes that Jesus’ first language was most likely Hebrew.)
So I am eager to learn from your blog entries “why most historians believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic”. Are these historians also linguists? Are they well acquainted with the Dead Sea Scrolls? Do they maintain that when the Gospels and Acts clearly state that somebody wrote or spoke in Hebrew that it really means Aramaic? (More than once in Acts Luke asserts that Paul spoke Hebrew. And when Jesus appeared to Saul on the way to Damascus, he spoke to him in Hebrew according to the book of Acts.) Were the Gospel writers and Luke ignorant about the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic? Were they imprecise? Or when they wrote Hebrew did they mean Hebrew?
I’m staying in Russia for most of the summer. Here many people can converse easily with me in English and many also know German and other European languages. I know a little Russian girl who will not be three years old until next month, yet she has an English vocabulary of more than a dozen words and sings “Jingle Bells” all year long. I think that Americans are the only people who are primarily monolingual.
I can easily accept the idea that Jesus spoke more than one language. I think he spoke Hebrew with a Galilean accent to his own people, Aramaic to the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21 – 28 with a parallel in Mark), Latin or Greek or the Roman Centurian (Luke 7:1 – 10), Hebrew to the Samaritan woman (John 4) because Samaritans limited their Scripture to the Torah, and Latin or Greek to Pilate (Jesus’ reply to Pilate in the Synoptics is very brief as though he understood, but was not fluent in Pilate’s language).
What practical difference does it make what language Jesus spoke? Is it just a topic of debate for biblical nerds like me? If Jesus in fact spoke Hebrew and it can be shown that at least the Synoptic Gospels are largely Greek translations from earlier Hebrew written sources, it means that the Gospels are much more historically reliable than most biblical scholars have thought. What if the Synoptic Gospels were not written fifty years or more after Jesus’ death and resurrection and based on the fading memories or theological fantasies of the Gospel writers? What if the Synoptic Gospels are based primarily on written sources that were in Hebrew and closely reflect Jesus’ words? My answer to these questions is that Hebrew was the primary language of Jesus and that the Gospel writers, especially Luke relied on Hebrew documents. I further believe that this means that when we read the Gospels, we can be confident that we are reading the words Jesus spoke, not the fanciful or fictional inventions of his followers fifty or more years after he taught.
Finally, I have noticed, like you, that the discussion of the language of Jesus tends to be rather passionate and even political. I think that much of our American scholarly Bible studies are derived from German scholars who tended to be anti-Semitic. It is not surprising that American biblical scholarship has been slow to take into account the general Semitic if not specifically Hebrew background of the New Testament. The Moslem scholars you mentioned also seem to be politically motivated. Scholars in Israel seem to be uniform in believing Jesus spoke Hebrew. All this means that in addition to sorting out the historical and linguistic and archeological evidence, we must be aware of possible political bias.
I look forward to your future blog entries on this topic.



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Paul Adams

posted July 1, 2010 at 11:56 am


Good intro to an important topic; especially in light of the rise in interests in apologetics to Muslims.
Although closing the gap between ipsissima verba (literally “exact words”) and ipisissima vox (literally “exact voice”) may be considerably more difficult should we learn that Jesus spoke (primarily) Aramaic and since the NT documents were penned in Koine Greek, I trust your conclusion will show the NT documents reliably record the thoughts and heartbeat of Jesus Christ our Lord. Put differently, language translation does not seriously impugn trustworthy historiography.



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Mark D. Roberts

posted July 1, 2010 at 12:52 pm


Paul: No question in my mind about the reliability of the Gospels with respect to knowing what Jesus taught. Yes, we may not have his exact words, except in cases where he may have spoke Greek. But we surely have his thoughts, and we know enough about Semitic languages to have a solid sense of what Jesus would have said in either Aramaic or Hebrew or both. (I am not bringing in at this point my conviction that the Gospel writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit.) As you may know, I wrote a whole book on the reliability of the Gospels.
Dr. Goff: As always, your comments are insightful and challenging. Thanks. I use “historian” as a broad term for those who study the past. This includes those whose expertise is in in historical linguistics, as well as archeology and biblical interpretation. All of us who are trying to figure out what happened “back then” are, in a sense, doing history, and are therefore historians.



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Matt

posted July 1, 2010 at 3:10 pm


Mark,
along your line of thinking it is so obvious by the writing themes and styles of the four gospel writers that each gospel has unique authorship. Matthew appealing the messianic side of Jesus, Luke with the historical facts and John equating Jesus as the Word and Life.
Have you ever written about this at all? I find that fascinating and don’t think it devalues Christianity but rather shows that different witnesses had different viewpoints.



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Steve Caruso

posted July 1, 2010 at 5:03 pm


In my personal experience, the vast majority of (although certainly not all) supporters of a Hebrew-speaking Jesus I have been exposed to in the West are usually theologically motivated and hail from a variety of flavors of “Messianic Judaism.” The case they build is a matter of Jewish identity relating to a Hebrew speaking Jesus as an extension of the Hebrew-speaking prophets Old Testament. It is usually such matters of identity that cause such passionate debates online. :-)
I must also admit that I have never come across an individual that holds to the position of a Hebrew-speaking Jesus because an Aramaic-speaking Jesus is sympathetic to Islam, so that one is rather new to me. It does not seem very far-fetched, however, as there is a widespread myth amongst different groups of Muslims on the Internet that Jesus used the word “Allah” because they mistakenly claim that “God” is “Allah” in Aramaic. :-)
Like most modern scholars, I side with the Aramaic-speaking Jesus camp.
Hebrew ceased to be the vernacular language of the Jews in favor of Aramaic during the Exile to Babylon as a matter of survival, and the ‘hard’ Biblical evidence for this is, of course, the books of Daniel and Ezra and the ‘soft’ evidence being early Biblical commentaries and the increasing use of Targums (Aramaic translations and interpretations of the Old Testament so that the common man could understand it) in Synagogues.
Out of the examples of Jesus’ speech recorded in the New Testament (e.g. “Ephphatha,” “talitha koumi,” “eloi eloi lama sabachthani,” etc.) 50% are certainly Aramaic and not Hebrew (where the other 50% could be either), and how he and his followers are criticized as Galilean in their mode of speech fits the criticism of speakers of Galilean Aramaic in the Talmud (loss of gutturals and distinct accent, among others). This was because Galilean Aramaic was a Western Aramaic dialect which was *quite* different in both pronunciation as well as in written form from the other Aramaic dialects spoken in and around Judea.
Even the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Bar Kochba letters (documents somewhat contemporary to the time) contain Aramaic spellings and vocabulary (specifically for common words where ‘classical’ Hebrew forms were available) indicate that Hebrew was not the first language of the community that wrote them, but a matter of religious language and national identity respectively. This is unlike how Greek vocabulary was borrowed into Hebrew and Aramaic as words were primarily absorbed for vocabulary and concepts that did not exist in those languages in the first place.
In either case, these reasons and many more are responsible for the majority view that Jesus’ vernacular language was Galilean Aramaic, with debatable (but certainly lesser) amounts of Hebrew and Greek. It is of course an important tool to keep in mind while studying the New Testament, as there are a number of places where underlying Aramaic wordplay of a Greek saying (which probably has its origins in an Aramaic oral tradition) is apparently responsible for some difficulty or awkwardness.
But that is a whole other series of articles to write. :-)
Peace,

Steve Caruso, MLIS
Translator, Aramaic Designs
Author, The Aramaic Blog



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Mark D. Roberts

posted July 1, 2010 at 6:35 pm


Steve: Wow! I did not know about “The Aramaic Blog” until today. I’m fascinated by what you’re doing there, and also at Aramaic designs. Your brief comments above make it clear that you know what you’re talking about. So thanks for weighing in. I hope you’ll comment on the rest of this series as it comes. I’ll point folks to your website as well.



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James DeFrancisco, PhD

posted July 1, 2010 at 9:56 pm


Mark and Steve,
Glad to see the work you are doing. The Aramaic/Islam criticism is a recent development since Aramaic is a linguistic bridge that could be a platform of understanding between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The recent book by Mark Siljander is dedicated to that end.



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Percival

posted July 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm


I don’t know any Aramaic of any variety, but I know the boundaries between languages and dialects are gray areas. In the Near East, there is a long-standing reality of high language and dialect mixing with lower varieties of dialect. Is it perhaps possible that even Jesus was not always concerned with keeping his Semitic dialect pure?
I have a question about velarized L in Galilean Aramaic. In Arabic, which I do speak, the L sound is only velarized when it is pronounced in the name of God in more formal contexts. I have read somewhere that the velarized L is a feature of Aramaic. Could you comment on that?
Also, it seems that Jesus quoted from the Septuagint at times rather than the Hebrew scriptures. What is the significance of that? Or, is it the case, that only the gospel writers used the Septuigint when reporting the quotation?
Looking forward to these posts.



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Joe

posted July 5, 2010 at 7:29 am


A reason to seek the primary language spoken by Christ, is to better understand His culture as you stated, and also, to determine his ethnicity. Neither has much effect on His Word, but brings clarity to deception of popular belief. It’s a relief to be in the light of things. Also, you mentioned that Christians may get upset about you supporting His speaking of Aramaic, because it would be supporting enemies of Christianity? Are you speaking about Islam? Islam is not an enemy of Christianity at all. I actually find it to be closer and more accurate than many Christian “Denominations”. The Quran confesses Jesus as Christ and Son of God. It also quotes in scripture that Muslims should seek their Christian brethren for guidance, because they have read The Word since long ago. It’s not Islam that is “Anti-Christian”, it’s the acts of those who may claim it. There is good and evil in everything. Not every Muslim follows the teachings of the Quran as closely as Islam states, just as not every “Christian” follows the ways of Christ.



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Percival

posted July 5, 2010 at 11:10 am


Joe,
I don’t know what denominations you are refering to, but your understanding of Islam needs some fact checking.
The Quran does indeed say positive things about Jesus as a prophet, but it nowhere calls him the Son of God.
Secondly, it is impossible to understand Islam by merely reading the Qur’an, especially the rather misleading English translations that are available. Hundreds of Qur’an verses are said to be abrogated. The real beliefs are found in the collections of traditions called Hadith. Also, be careful when taking Muslims statements at face value. Many have been instructed that it is acceptable to lie about religion when you are propagating it. Yes, seriously.
It is good to see someone like yourself go against the common perception of Islam as anti-Christian, as modern political Islam actually is. Islam is very wide, but it is definitely not close to Christianity in its essential tenants. Keep exploring.



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Peter

posted July 10, 2010 at 9:17 pm


Not my area at all, but I had read a rather convincing article that indicated that Aramaic was almost certainly Jesus’ heart language (therefore, when in distress on the cross He cried out in Aramaic and was not understood) but that His public teaching was almost certainly in Greek. Made sense to me.



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UCEDA School

posted February 8, 2011 at 6:28 pm


Regardless of the language he spoke, he was able to “speak” to everyone. It does not matter if it was translated or not, but the thing that does matter is the actual communication.



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Sandra M. Bautista

posted April 1, 2011 at 9:29 pm


First ofall thank you for writting this.In all honesty i think the language is not that big of a deal.I believe God would have given Jesus the ability to speak Aramaic,Hebrew,Greek and Latin any language that had to be used.In those times it was those languages now there ar many more so if Jesus was here im sure God would give him the ability to speak English,Spanish,Chinese,Japanese etc…



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learn to speak spanish easily

posted December 3, 2011 at 7:26 pm


This is very interesting, You’re an excessively professional blogger. I have joined your feed and sit up for searching for extra of your great post. Also, I have shared your site in my social networks



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